Even in modern society, health inequalities exist and cannot be ignored. Interconnected through race, gender, geography and more, health inequality affects many people within the UK and COVID-19 has only exposed and exacerbated this issue.

As reducing health inequalities is one of the core requirements of the NHS Operational Planning and Contracting Guidance, we look at how patient engagement can reduce health inequalities, leading to a preventative rather than reactive healthcare model.

1) Supporting Better Health

We can reduce the chance of inequalities by supporting better health across the board. Improving healthcare can be costly, but if ignored, not making these changes can be more expensive in the long run.

A fundamental way of supporting patients is by giving them the tools to improve or maintain their health. Developing services and tech that helps manage conditions people live with can play a crucial part in closing the health inequality gap.

An example of this would be diabetes management solutions. Software and tech that allows those with diabetes to track and monitor their condition can result in better health management through greater patient engagement.

Supporting better health is also about considering the end-to-end care experience. Many people’s healthcare journey doesn’t just start and end with one appointment — there may be consultations, physiotherapy, medication and more to consider.

Ensuring a patient is supported throughout this process and the relevant organisations are liaised with allows patients to be fully committed to and engaged with their health while reducing readmission rates.

2) Cross-sector Collaboration

Thinking beyond the healthcare industry and working with organisations in multiple sectors on patient engagement is another way to minimise health inequalities through proactive measures. 

Working with partners dedicated to delivering healthcare information and processes for the public, as well as using technology to promote better health, all leads towards greater patient engagement and investment in their health, no matter their circumstances. Consider collaboration with other public bodies such as education, social care and public health to achieve this.

A great example of cross-sector collaboration working towards better health is the EFL Trust FIT FANS. The English Football League and NHS have teamed up to create a free health programme encouraging football fans to lead a healthier lifestyle. This targets a wide audience across all ages, genders and backgrounds, helping reduce the traditional inequalities in the healthcare system.

Although cross-sector collaboration is critical, it is also about looking at how different parts of the health service work together to ensure patients are getting the best possible care. Are extra treatments needed? Physiotherapy? A treatment plan? As departments work together cohesively, this allows for greater patient engagement and health results.

3) Improving the Health of the Population

It is estimated that at least 24.4% of the UK population suffer from an underlying health condition, with a lack of patient engagement. This figure could have detrimental effects on both patients and health services.

Identifying gaps and increasing health awareness and education with the whole population, such as healthy lifestyle initiatives, is crucial to ensuring inequalities are reduced and everybody is invested in their health. 

The NHS Long Term Plan identifies 10 areas of the population’s health for focus; prevention, smoking, obesity and type two diabetes, diet and alcohol, antimicrobial resistance and vaccines, cancer, mental health, air pollution, children and maternity care, and gambling.

For most people, at least one of these areas will affect them somehow, with some having a greater impact on specific demographics that may already be at an increased risk of health inequalities.

More information, education, and community outreach programmes dedicated to tackling these issues increase awareness amongst the public and patients and allow them to become more invested and engaged in their health.

4) Virtual Care

Turning to digital technology to help reduce health inequalities is a method that can benefit almost anyone looking to access healthcare. 

As outlined in the NHS strategy, providing virtual consultations, increased access to information, patient engagement platforms, automatic dispensary, online booking systems and health reminders allows people to access care whenever is best for them.

This is particularly beneficial to those who may not be able to physically access appointments. Increasing the availability of care and ways in which it can be accessed has a positive impact on patient engagement and reduces health inequalities.

5) Improving Access to Care

One of the biggest challenges facing those who may already be predisposed to health inequalities is the struggle to access care. Improving access to care in multiple ways, some of which we have already identified, can help those who need care to receive it.

As discussed, virtual care is a crucial driver to ensuring more people can access the care they need through more flexibility to fit in with an individual’s schedule and needs. A patient’s job, location, childcare and other factors can all impact how easy it is to access healthcare.

However, there are more ways how access to care can dramatically improve. After identifying key blockers to reducing inequalities, solutions such as reducing waiting times, increasing availability of appointments and financial assistance with factors such as prescription and equipment payments can all work together to improve patient engagement.

6) Patient Education

Reducing health inequalities does not just come through patient engagement but also through increasing health awareness. Investing in education allows patients to be more aware of their health and, therefore, more invested in their care journey.

Patient education also links to cross-collaboration between sectors. Ensuring health awareness and education is not just the focus of health organisations but is prevalent throughout society, goes towards ensuring more people have the information and access they need to engage in their health needs and close the inequality gap.

Proactive vs Reactive Care

By investing in health technology, access to care and education, we increase the likelihood of preventative care being used rather than reactive care in response to a developed issue.

Increasing patient awareness of their health allows them to be more proactive and identify care needs earlier on, helping the health sector shift towards a proactive care model and move away from a potentially more costly reactive approach. 

Identifying where inequalities may occur is crucial to ensuring you have the resources, technology and processes to address this issue and close the gap so everybody has an equal opportunity to access care.

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